A triumvirate of West Midlands FE colleges has joined forces with Aston university to boost the number of Chinese people studying in the region.
Taking advantage of the growing Chinese demand for British higher education, the colleges and university offer an international foundation degree in business.
This will give predominantly Chinese students the opportunity to improve their English language and study skills so that they can go on to study for a four-year BSc in management at Aston university.
"This collaboration offers a bridge between the work students have undertaken in their home country and study at a prestigious university business school," said Dr Helen Higson, director of quality at Aston business school.
Although the foundation degree has been offered by City college, Coventry, for the past five years, this autumn it is also being offered for the first time by Stratford upon Avon college and Matthew Boulton college of further and higher education in Birmingham.
This September the colleges took around 40 students, most of whom are Chinese. They join what are thought to be the largest group of overseas students in the UK. The British Council estimates that around 35,000 Chinese now study in Britain, compared with around 30,000 students from the USA and 30,000 from Greece.
A growing middle class in China has enabled parents and grandparents to afford the fees for higher education overseas. A shortage of university places in China leads many to seek higher education abroad. The one child per family policy also means that families can focus all their support on one person.
Four years ago, Tony Blair launched a campaign aimed at making the UK a world-class leader in international education. Before this, international activity in FE colleges had been fairly modest.
A 2001 survey conducted by the Association of Colleges found that almost 200 colleges were involved in work abroad. Some 133 were recruiting students to UK-based courses, 56 were delivering programmes overseas and 72 were engaged in franchising and consultancy work.
The families of the Chinese students studying in the West Midlands colleges will pay pound;7,000 in fees for the foundation degree and a further pound;7,850 a year for their studies at Aston university. This amounts to a considerable investment of around pound;35,000, not counting living costs. "The foundation degree programme gives them the right sort of training to be successful in our business school," Dr Higson said. "It is also a good way of recruiting overseas students.
"The learning environment they have come from is quite different," she added. "They have to think more here. Often there is a culture of learning by rote in China. The teacher is always right. Whereas we debate things and we want them to engage.
"Their English is not good when they first arrive," she added. "We spend quite a bit of time explaining management jargon. They tend to have learned social English. But their numeracy skills are excellent - they put most British students to shame."
The students spend one day a week at the university sitting in on lectures and attending tutorials, and the rest of their week studying English and marketing, economics and accountancy in the colleges.
To progress to the BSc in management, the students have to achieve certain standards in English, pass two university modules - foundations of management and international perspectives in organisations, and achieve satisfactory standards in their college work.
Last year, 25 of 27 students qualified for the transition to study at Aston.
Patrick Gleeson, vice-principal of Matthew Boulton college and director of the business school, said that the college appointed a Mandarin-speaking student recruitment officer, Nancy Duan, to help market the course and ensure that students' needs are met. "It is one thing recruiting students, but you also need an extensive support mechanism in place to make sure they settle down well and that any problems are addressed," he said.
"Taking Chinese students enriches the lives of home students," he added.
"Far Eastern students are motivated and interested in education. They take a full part in college life. Outside the classroom, they take part in enrichment programmes, and sport including basketball."
Yang Zhang, 20, from Tiangin near Beijing, arrived in England this month and is now enrolled on the foundation degree programme. "I enjoy this college," he said, "it is a good study environment. You can study very professional knowledge about economics and business."
Haijing Wu, 19, from Guang in southern China, has also enrolled on the programme. "I wanted to learn more English," he said "and I am looking forward to studying in another educational system."